Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Muscle Memory

The first time you recall hearing the concept of muscle memory, you were in the study of a musician who'd used the activity inherent in the term to achieve legendary status as a performer. You'd grown up listening to his music, your subsequent tastes in all aspects of composition influenced by him.

Here you were, years, many years later, sitting in his Newbury Park, CA study, not only on a first-name basis, but because he'd just hired you to edit an enormous autobiography. He sought your edits for one quirky reason and one more professional one.

The thing in his mind that caused you to be more than a lingering fan came one evening when he, as a principal speaker at a writers' conference in which you participated, he spoke of an aspect of his career and a pianist who used to play in his orchestra.

Shaw could not recall the pianist's name, which, in its way is the reason for these vagrant lines.  Michael Marmarosa, nicknamed "Dodo," because of his eccentricities, worked for Shaw at the height of the dance band swing era, one already slowing down toward the smaller combo and the investigation of melodic and chord changes known as be-bop or the more simple bop.

Before an audience of about three hundred persons, Shaw told the story of the popularity of one particular song, "Frenisi," which happened to be the first of Shaw's music you recall hearing. On some traveling tour in the midwest, Marmarosa said, in Shaw's account, "If we get one more request to play 'Frenisi,' I'm out of here for good."

Sure enough, someone requested "Frenisi," in a voice too loud for Shaw to ignore. Marmarosa stood, said "That tears  it," walked off the bandstand and out the door, never to be seen by Shaw again. "Gifted musician," Shaw told his audience, "but undisciplined. I can't remember his name."

You, on the other hand, could.  "Dodo Marmarosa," you said, in reality more to yourself than any desire to be heard. But Shaw did hear it. "Jesus Christ," he said from the podium, "that's got to be Lowenkopf. I heard you have a weird memory."

And thus you entered a tumultuous relationship with Shaw, culminating with his disagreement with a large deletion from his autobiography and his demands to know why, of all the unnecessary matter in the 1250+-page manuscript, you chose that particular one. This was not the first time he'd objected to your suggested cuts. But this time, he was emphatic, pounded the manuscript with heavy emphasis.

"Because," you said, "leaving it in makes you seem like an asshole."

You both understood at that moment how the relationship between you was over.  In many ways, your levels of patience were at the same intensity.  "Crescendo," you said. He said, "Yes, but no Da capo."

You came away from the relationship with an awareness and understanding of muscle memory, a parting gift from a notional, egotistical, cranky genius of an artist to add to the gifts you've had from him since the age of eight or nine.

Whether in mere practice or actual performance, the artist relies on muscle memory, being able to do a particular thing or series of things without thinking about it.  For instance, "How," Shaw once asked me, "do you think I was able to get notes and tones from a clarinet that were well beyond its capacity?"

"Muscle memory?"

"Fucking well told."

The performer practices to bring the movements and reach beyond thought, into muscle memory, where the result comes forth from the more internal and intuitive depths of the performer.

From Shaw you also learned that Dodo Marmarosa liked to practice sixteen or eighteen hours a day. "He had that simple style, you know. He didn't;t want to cover it up with unnecessary trills or fake harmonics."

Alas, your own interior still clings to the fake harmonics of unnecessary details. You are aware of it each time you sit to compose narrative. You hope someday to have it under control. Then you can tell Arthur Arshawsky you see what he's talking about.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fire Your Inner English Teacher--Salute Your Inner Critic

When you first stuck an experimental toe into the waxing tide of storytelling, you were too excited about the prospect of getting words down on paper to care much about such matters as critics, reviewers, and least of all the great roaring tide known as critical theory.

All you had to do--indeed, all you did do--was put individuals down on paper, men and women who paraded through your teen-aged dreams after your component parts transposed them from the actual persons you saw in the warp and weft of your waking life.

Without giving it much thought, you set these individuals in motion with some idiosyncratic trait rather than any real agenda. You'd in effect taken a technique from Homer, whom, at the time, you believed to be one person rather than an undifferentiated group of poet-storytellers. Thus, the man with big ears. The woman with loud, clanking jewelry. The boy with egg yolk stains on his shirt.

Not until you were well past high school and into the deeper waters of storytelling did you even consider the implications of the critical essayist. With your own idiosyncratic belief that there was practical sense in becoming an English major in order to study writing, you shifted schools and the study of journalism and graphic arts to a university where there was an actual opportunity to major in English Literature, with profitable side trips into French, Russian, Spanish, and, yes, medieval literature as well.

You had only one book to guide you, Writing Magazine Fiction, commended to you by a high school teacher, published by a university press. Bare-bones advice for those who would, as you would, write for and be published in magazines.

An early glimpse into the world of the reviewer came your way as an English major, Byron's 1809 verse poem, labeled as a satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.  This was about the time when, in a Nineteenth Century American Lit class, you were being introduced to the joys of Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, and elsewhere, you were required to read and digest Reverend Swift's A Modest Proposal. Small wonder then that you equated satire with criticism. Over the years, the equation grew to encompass your definition of satire as a medium used to undercut some aspect of The Establishment, then suggest a viable, potential cure.

In the ensuing years, you gave more time to reviews, criticism, and critical theory, indeed teaching an undergraduate class by the very name Critical Theory. Today, your views of critical theory and exploratory essays is tidal, waxing at such writers as George Orwell, Edward Said, Joan Didion, and Simone de Beauvoir, waning at such critical pronouncements as those who declare the text to variously be dead or unimportant.

To this day, when the likes of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mark Twain, and George Orwell take the stage, you listen. At the moment, you're also quite willing to take Verlyn Klinkenborg and John McPhee into serious account. Indeed, you have two copies of Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences about Writing on hand, one in the studio, one in the car, for immediate reference. Stashed within the bowels of your iPhone, McPhee's Draft No.4: On the Writing Process.

You have, yourself, been a critic/reviewer for any number of publications, some as diverse as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, The National Catholic Reporter, Borderline Magazine, the Montecito (CA)Journal, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner,the Los Angeles Free Press, and yet others.

You enjoy writing about writing, about things that have been written, about ideas awaiting interpretation and implementation. You've gone through a stage where you enjoyed writing take-downs and satire. You believe the stage has evolved to the point where you most enjoy writing about things that excite, enthuse, or bewilder you.

All of which is by way of speaking to your belief that each writer must delve into that area of personal taste and conviction in order to discover the things he/she stands for and against. Writing is political. If it is not; it should be.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Characters and the Current Market Price for Fish

The sooner a writer understands what her/his protagonist wants--really wants, to the point of being willing to sacrifice for it--the closer the writer is to a viable path to completion. For your part, you consider it a good day's work if you can reckon the true basic goal of the front-rank characters. 

Thus you begin, knowing what someone wants and who among the dramatis personae are in one or more ways opposed to the protagonist's goal. In the bargain, these antagonists will take active steps to prevent the protagonist from realizing the goal.

The next step along the way of composing a story is for the writer to overcome personal boundaries. You believe this aspect to be the unspoken elephant in the living room. In your own reading and writing, you try to visualize the degree of conscience inherent in each character. You match this degree of conscience with your own.

Sometimes, when you are in favored restaurants and there is a dish on the menu that appeals to you--usually fish--there is, instead of a price, some series of initials indicating current market price. In this case, the designation applies to the amount the restaurant has today for the item on the menu.

This is relevant because your own conscience, whatever its condition, is not a fixed-price entree on your psyche; it has floating values. You like to think you are a person of conscience, aware of the consequences of your behavior and your own sense of responsibility. You are also aware of the times you bent or set conscience aside and the consequences you may still be paying off.

Story begins when front-rank characters consider the possibility of setting conscience aside. Macbeth, sitting by himself, watching one of his servants carry a dinner tray to the room where King Duncan--whom Macbeth has decided to kill--awaits. Macbeth conflates the notion of this being the king's last supper with the most famous last supper in Western culture. 

Although the king is no match in virtue or reach with Christ, Shakespeare's Duncan is nevertheless a person of tangible goodness. Macbeth's conscience kicks in. He goes to his partner-in-crime, his wife, to tell her he can't go through with the plan. This is a key moment in the story; once again, we see Macbeth's conscience behaving in ways we hope will mirror our own. Once again, we admire and root for Macbeth.

As readers and writers, we need to see the protagonist in the act of being pushed to the outer boundary of conscience, then pushed over it. This moment may not be the precise moment where a particular story begins, but it is the moment where we as readers and writers wait to see what comes next. If that isn't story, you've yet to discover what story is.

The writer who is able to identify the conscience landscape of her/his characters has reached the point of ability to create characters of consequence.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Step One: Creating Good Guys and Bad Guys

Front-rank characters go about their business of story in response to their inner forces of monomania. Those of us who read and study dramatic literature learn early on to ask of the characters we encounter what they want.

You, for your part in the equation, have asked such individuals as Tom Jones, Mrs. Dalloway, Ishmael, Mr. Biswas, Charlotte Temple, Jane Eyre, and Scout Finch what they wanted as conditions to their presence in the stories wherein you associate them.

Those of us who read in the service of undertaking our own ventures into composition extend the boundaries. We wonder what characters will do to accomplish their goal. 

Yet others of us who read and seek to compose wonder even more. We wonder what happens to characters who achieve their stated goals as well as those who do not. We "get" why signing aboard The Pequod is a primary goal for Ishmael, who has found the world too much with him for the moment and wishes to get away to sea in order to calm down and ease away from his bipolarity.

We also recognize that he has done so with remarkable ease within the first several pages of a door-stopper-thick volume, whose very size alerts us to the consequences Ishmael will experience now that he has joined the crew of The Pequod. Ishmael is now swept up in a greater tsunami than his own depression; he is caught in the grip of a yet more intense monomaniac, hard at work. 

We note how Ishmael's primary goal has shifted from the mere getting away from the self of himself while in the city, and has ratcheted to survival. How lucky Ishmael is to have been chosen by his creator, Mr. Herman Melville, to survive, if only to tell the story. He is chosen to survive for other reasons as well, thus has Mr. Melville set the engines of our speculation in motion.

We are not finished with approaches to composition. Consider those writers who have--or will--wonder about protagonists and their opposite numbers whose goals are still buried under layers of guilt, obligation, and significant negligence toward self-examination.

In any case, there is no fun in being a monomaniac, although Moses Herzog, that monomaniacal protagonist of Saul Bellow's eponymous novel, gives us readers page after page of escalating mirth.

Memorable stories begin with monomaniacs, individuals whose wish for some particular outcome applies a match to a fuse attached to a bomb. One need only consider the individual ultimately known as Inspector Jaivert to see the need for monomania in story. Born in prison to a fortune-teller mother and a prison guard, he becomes at first a prison guard, then a policeman, then, by dint of his single-minded focus, a detective. Although he has read some books, he is disdainful of them. His significant vice is an occasional dip of snuff; his pleasures almost nonexistent.

If, as you have written elsewhere, Wile E. Coyote--also a monomaniac--is the patron saint of protagonists, Jaivert is the paradigm of being driven to the outer circles of hell through his exaggerated focus on the rule of law. 

In further demonstration of how self-destructive Jaivert's monomania is, his life, even for the times in which he was created, is relatively short, a scant fifty years. He could have lived longer had he not, out of frustration and rage, taken his own life. To add additional weight to his self-destruction, his creator designated him as an observant Roman Catholic. Thus even in death he has cheated himself from the possibilities of Redemption.

The lesson to be learned here is how monomania is expected in significant degree for those characters we consider protagonists. To advance a front-rank character toward the status of adversary or antagonist, we must turn up the heat of exaggeration. Notice how Lear pushes at the envelope of our tolerance, seeming in his behavior to be struggling with the necessary exaggeration to become an antagonist.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

To Thine Own Selves, Be True

To whom does the narrator speak in a novel?

This question may be overlooked by the author when composing early drafts, but it must ultimately be answered. Beginning with the general assumption that narration represents a character who is usually the primary protagonist, the answer to the question needs to consider if there are to be any other supportive voices, providing a method known as multiple point of view.

Romeo is the driving force of Romeo and Juliet. Without Romeo's precipitating action of crashing the Capulet party, there'd be no story.

The multiple point of view is your favorite approach. You find exemplary uses of it in the novels of the mystery/suspense author, Robert Crais, who has a series protagonist, Elvis Cole, you quiet admire, often because he has so many qualities you dislike. Crais is as good in using surprising details to elaborate Cole as Dickens is in Dickens' use of small details to bring his minor characters to life. 

In the Crais novels, there are other well-defined individuals, but the stories are clearly built around Cole. As a result, even when Cole is off stage, you find yourself wondering not only what he's doing but what he's thinking.

One important matter informs your regard of the use of point of view as the vehicle for relating the story. Dashiell Hammett, a writer whose work you much admire and continue to learn from, began his career as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, private security and investigative operatives. One of Hammett's recurrent narrators, who works for the fictional Continental Detective Agency and is known only as The Continental Op, has a built-in reason for being a narrator: each of his stories is intended to be a report to a client.

You often amuse and confound yourself to the point of frustration by questioning in your own work and the works of other writers the reason for the story being told in the first place. Yes, the storyteller wishes an audience. Yes, you aspire to a readership. But there is always some point in your own composition or reading when you ask yourself why this particular protagonist is telling his or her particular story.

The narrator of Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," tells the story to impress his audience with the brilliance of his plan and the effectiveness of the revenge he sought. He is, in your view of the story, every bit as imprisoned by it as Fortunate, his victim. Thus Poe is demonstrating a dramatic version of irony, which is instructive and entertaining.

Frank Chambers, the narrator of James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is telling his story because it is at once an apologia for his having gone beyond the boundary of morality with Cora, and a cautionary tale about allowing one's self to become fixated on the outcome to the point of breaking laws.

More often than not, the writer is directing the characters to address one another rather than the audience. For your part in the bargain, you tend to enjoy and get more out of reading and composing where your takeaway is of feeling like an eavesdropper, bringing as much or more insight to what you've witnessed than the characters, themselves.

The narrator is, accordingly, talking to the two essential parts of his or her being, observing with each as it argues with, learns from, and accommodates with the other.

Your definition of an ending for a narrative is some form of negotiated settlement with reality. In that same spirit, you look at a narrative point of view as an articulated and acted-upon conversation between the desires of the character and the perception of how the character accommodates those wishes.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sa va sans dire

What is the writer's intent when composing? In concert with that generalized question, what is your intent when you compose? And in the spirit of your wish to keep matters clear and direct, is their a difference in your intent when you compose fiction and when you compose nonfiction such as a review, essay, or some aspect of memoir?

To add ingredients to this goulash, there is this question: Which is more meaningful to you, the dramatic principles of invention so far as you have learned them to date, or the observations of factual accuracy as you observe that quality to be.

You could also add this question: What were you looking for when you began to realize how reading could be a path you could follow, leading you from the constraints of your early age?  Didn't reading hold out the promise, then provide the fulfillment of escape from boredom and the conventional constraints of your early years?

Indeed you read at first to escape the boredom inherent in your surroundings. Your getaway car, its engine revving, was story. You brought back enough from reading story to turn huge expanses of empty lots into jungles, oceans, mountain ranges and, at one point, the Anatolian Plain wherein you undertook replications of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  

Most, but not all, nonfiction offered you information, but little opportunity to use it without yourself becoming boring. When you have no tangible opportunity to use information except to spout it or, worse, pontificate with it, you become the very boredom you dread.

Now that you revisit the matter, you wished through reading to observe others in their attempts to escape boredom and constraint. When you were not reading, you tended to admire and gravitate toward adults and peers who did not appear to be boring. 

At some point, perhaps in observation of the peers you were drawn to, you began to realize that you were more often drawn to liars and those who exaggerated the circumstances in which they found themselves.

There was an entire part of you who orchestrated exaggerations and lies as an escape route from boredom. You were attracted to the reading life because it offered the continuous promise of escape. The side benefit came from fact-based narrative, which is to say nonfiction. If you had enough demonstrable data at your hands, you were simultaneously building acceptance for your exaggerations and outright lies.

Two major works of nonfiction, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and The Journals of Lewis and Clark, because of their frequent lapses into conversational presentation of information, became standards against which you judged work that made no bones about being invented. And Twain, thanks to his magnificent introduction of his main character, the Mississippi River, led you to suspect that factual data--or the pretense of factual data--could be used to manipulate readers and, indeed, other characters within the same narrative.

There was little question, early on, which path you should follow. Thanks to some fourth grade misdeeds involving simple mathematics and, later, eleventh grade fisticuffs with algebra, you had no difficulty setting aside thoughts of becoming an aeronautical engineer. So far as becoming a restaurateur was concerned, you could indulge your appetites for cuisine either at your mother's table or by dining out.

"You are one devious, manipulative son of a bitch," an older person named Lou, who also had literary interests, told you, "but are you devious and manipulative enough to be a writer?"

"Nous verons, n'est-ce pas," you responded.

"I didn't know you spoke French," Lou said.

You didn't then, you don't now, but sa va sans dire, you were manipulative and devious then, as you are now.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Do People Even Drink Amontillado These Days?

When you pick up a book, you are engaging in a transaction with at least one other person, who might no longer be alive. You pick up the book with the expectation of being a part of that transaction. 

If the book is nonfiction, you'll come away with information and opinions for use in your own conversations and intellectual survival. If the book is a work of fiction, you expect to be shanghaied to geographical and emotional planes you'd not expected to visit, caused to root for some kind of tangible achievement for one or more individuals you know up front to be imaginary. You'll have every chance of seeing your way into, around, or through some existential and emotional maze.

When you undertake to write a book, you're offering the kinds of outcomes you expect when your own intent is to read.

In each case, as reader or writer, you're vulnerable to such variables as boredom, insufficient information, too much information, disturbing conclusions and, worse, disturbing illustrations.
Even though you often read for comfort and write to achieve yet another kind of comfort, you run the risk of being transported to a place and degree well beyond comfort.

As a younger person, the more you read, the more your appreciation grew for the men and women who seemed to have an inexhaustible appetite for exploration, extrapolation, and the adventure of examination. You also became aware of the multitudes of failed attempts at the barest forms of connection and communication.

One afternoon, when you had a favored author in your editorial office at 1640 So. La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles, you heard him deliver a story about an event that befell him at an open house given by a literary agent who, at one time, had been your own literary agent. A bellicose and belligerent individual had, so your about-to-be author revealed to you, confronted him. "See here, Sturgeon," the confronter told the author, whose name was indeed Sturgeon. "Ninety percent of this science fiction you people write is pure crap."

Sturgeon confessed to you that he was possibly a bit drunk at the time, but less so than the boor who'd accosted him. "My dear sir," Sturgeon reported himself as having said, "ninety percent of everything is pure crap."

You're pleased to note that the incident has found its way into the configurations of Google as both Sturgeon's Law and Sturgeon's Revelation. This discovery forces you to conclude that Theodore Sturgeon made the observation numerous times, the moment in your office being only one recitation. You are led to conclude that Sturgeon dined out on that trope, perhaps already aware this was yet another reason why his observations about the human condition why he would be remembered.

Sturgeon's Law or, if you will, Revelation, also led you to the direct understanding that the concept of an individual dining out on some observation or other was the subtextual root of Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story, "A Cask of Amontillado." 

In your view, this story ends well beyond the eerie, plangent conclusion of Montressor, the narrator/protagonist, telling us his tormentor's bones have remained undisturbed for years, and wishing for Fortunato to rest in peace. This ending suggests to you the notion of the narrator dining out and gaining some sort of fame by reminding newer audiences of his own cunning.

Roiling about in your mind is the potential for a remake of Poe's story with the new opening scene of a hostess arranging the guest list for a sit-down dinner party. Her husband looks at the guest list, hopeful Montressor is not invited. The wife says she has no other choice than to invite him. Family obligation. The husband replies with the fervent hope someone will have the good sense of stopping him before he can relate that awful, self-serving narrative.

Reading and writing are among the more significant things we of homo sapiens do four ourselves and for the genus and species. These activities become in actual and metaphorical forms the prisms through which reality passes to become, at the peak, art, at the nadir, boredom.

You've had occasion to teach a course for graduate, undergraduate, and curious adult audiences in which the goal is to show "How to Read Like a Writer." Since you've been preoccupied these past days with books that hold for you even greater promise than collections of stories or novels or essay. Time now to nod toward Francine Prose's excellent and compelling How to Read Like a Writer,  in which she provides her syllabus for doing that most worthwhile thing.

This excellent book makes you want to eavesdrop and spy on Prose's considerable analytical and storytelling ways, then to read more books and write more.